Darko Suvin (2008, 7,650 words)
EMOTION, BRECHT, EMPATHY VS. SYMPATHY 1/
I wish to pursue here in tandem two lines of argument for mutual illumination. The first one is a general view of emotions which uses, among other approaches, some feminist-materialist argumentation (primarily but not only of Alison Jaggar) and insights by Brecht. It seems to me important to show some serious–though not central–blind spots in Brecht’s treatment of the female gender in life or in effigy, and to show that he had an understanding of subjecthood or personality that refused the patriarchal or militaristic downgrading of emotion as well as its Hollywoodian or philistine misuse. The second one builds on my argument in other places2/ that the red thread central to understanding Brecht’s work and life, which crystallized out of Brecht’s own cognitive emotions and insights, was the image, concept, and practice of stance or bearing: Haltung, a posture-cum-attitude consubstantial with an interest, which is in turn not to be disjoined from certain kinds of emotion. The notion that his work is unemotional, or split between reason and emotion, is obsolete and misleading. The two lines are united in a discussion of the pivotal distinction between empathy and sympathy which I think can and must be extrapolated from Brecht’s stance and writings.
- An Orientation about Emotion
…this concept too we shall have to clean before using, as a ancient concept, used much and by many people and for many purposes.
Brecht, “Volkstümlichkeit und Realismus,” 22.1: 408
I shall start by paraphrasing what I take to be the most reasonable mainstream interpretation of emotion by Mandler (66-71 and passim), supplemented by Bruner: An emotion is the name given to an aspect of personal life that arises as interaction between a general situation, as a rule involving other people, and a pre-existing personal (single or collective) disposition. A sharp demand from the situation is interpreted or reworked by the individual–who understands it as a given overall intimation or Gestalt—into bodily arousal, with outputs both to consciousness (conceptual thought, and resulting self-perception) and to response readiness. I conclude that emotion (subjects being affected by subjects) is an intricately intertwined obverse of action (subjects affecting other subjects). The central question about emotion/s today is how they permit or hinder which actions.
Briefer and more primitive emotions are often called affects. More than momentary emotions, which are usually therefore also less simple, result when action is for a while interrupted. Such emotions also have an evaluative, clearly cognitive, dimension, though they may be given as an implicit whole without articulation. They have to do with the way in which a person’s particular activity or state relates to her/his whole embodied personality, its life-horizons, values, and (dis)pleasures (cf. Wolf 113-14), and in particular its bearing or stance. My approach also adopts Jaggar’s working delimitation of emotions which excludes “automatic physical responses and nonintentional sensations, such as hunger pangs” (“Love” 148). Most important, emotions are not in some kind of totally non-rational limbo or “dumb”; in this “cognitivist” view, they comprise not only feelings but also orientation or intention, “their intentional aspect, the associated judgment” (ibidem 149).3/
There is no necessary opposition between cognition and emotion. I would count as understanding, cognition or knowledge anything that satisfies two conditions: that it can help us in coping with our personal and collective existence; that it can be validated by feedback with its application in the existence, modifying it and being modified by it (cf. more in Suvin, “On Cognitive”). Thought, action, and emotion represent “abstractions that have a high theoretical cost. The price we pay… in the end is to lose sight of their structural interdependence. At whatever level we look, …the three are constituents of a unified whole [that achieves its integration only within a cultural system].” (Bruner 117-18) As to reason, Brecht noted that “people do much that is reasonable yet does not pass through their Verstand [formal or conceptual reasoning, DS]. We cannot well do without this.” (GBFA 22.2: 825, further used by Volume: Page) The systematized notional constructs tend to false harmony and ideological univocity necessarily present in any closed doctrine or world view (e.g. 21: 414-17): “The learner is more important than the doctrine” (21: 531) was Brecht’s central orientation. In such considerations, he is an astonishingly early pioneer of a reintegration of the body, with all its senses (as the young Marx also was), into the practice and theory of our knowledge: the body is for Brecht the co-determining anchorage for stance. A stance is present, I think, in all personal and possessive pronouns, all deixis (indication of pointing), and all metaphors of vision and orientation. It allowed him finally to conclude: “Such a thinking… does not oppose feeling…. It seems to me now simply a kind of behaviour, namely a societal behaviour. The whole body with all the senses participates in it.” (22.2: 753). This dovetails well with Merleau-Ponty (Phénomenologie, also Structure), in whose terms embodiment is both a lived experience of being body and a realization that the body is the site of cognition or understanding, which is itself inextricably tied to embodied action as preparation, surrogate, response or feedback validation.
As emotions participate in the cognitive process they are often affected by its categorizations, arguments, and organization4/: they may be intensified or softened, diffused to the whole process or dwarfed into insignificance. It is not useful but scandalous to apply to them the hackneyed, mechanical, and obfuscating division where reason is seen as masculine, analytic, proper to the mind, cold, objective and universal, sane, public, and orderly, while emotion would be feminine, synthetic, proper to the body, warm, subjective and particular, sick, private, and politically untrustworthy. From the stance adopted here (which attempts to find a way amid a jungle of contrasting opinions), what may today be tenable views on emotion? I shall touch only upon four points.
First, the hegemonic notion about emotions is that they must be largely involuntary and private: but in fact they are never only such. At least in the most significant cases (including the exemplary case of art), they are active engagements of the whole personality, psychophysical stances. The emotions are so intimately interfused into personality that only to a rather limited degree are we entitled to disclaim responsibility for them. They are necessary concomitants of any horizon of action, including fear of and horror at actions. This is particularly true for long-term emotions, which are obviously not affects (cf. Mother Courage’s discussion of “the long rage” with the Young Soldier in Scene 4 of that play). Once we have refused the pernicious Cartesian split between the cogito and the sensual body, it is possible to see that emotions are neither fully intentional or conscious nor fully non-intentional or irrational; “[r]ather, they are ways in which we engage actively and even construct the world” (Jaggar, “Love” 152-53 and passim).
Second, as Brecht quite correctly realized, among the most fundamental categories when discussing any psychology geared toward action are evaluation, observation, and finally intention. Not only are they not to be sundered from each other, but all of them are closely related to emotions. This seems clear for value-judgments, which are in constant feedback with emotion. In complex ways, this holds for observation too, which is also deeply enmeshed with intentions (interests), from the primary choices what to focus on and privilege, to the interpretive frames chosen: “Observation is an activity of selection and interpretation.” In it, the Humean chasm between value and fact is not possible. What will in a given situation be, by given agents, taken for facts depends on “intersubjective agreements that consist partly in shared assumptions about ‘normal’ or appropriate emotional responses to situations” (Jaggar, “Love” 154).
Third, at least some determining factors of any emotion participate also in some collective engagement that is at that juncture of social history possible to sketch out or imagine–imperfectly, or perhaps more perfectly. While probably sharing other factors with “long duration” (though not eternal and “intrinsically human”) emotional stances, a particular and personal emotion is in that sense always also a historical and social Gestalt, a construct not fully or even decisively determined by genes or neurobiology. This is particularly clear in connection with the value-judgments, intention, and interests just discussed (cf. Brecht 22.2: 657-59). Emotions are social constructs which use biological potentialities in a number of culturally overdetermined ways. The concept itself of emotion is not only different in different societies but indeed invented as a closed semantic field only in some of them. I would instance that in Japanese culture the term and concept of “kokoro” means equally what is in English expressed by a person’s disposition, heart, mind, feeling, spirit or conception, i.e. something like the aware and feeling essence of personality (since the East Asian cultural sphere has no Christian concept of “soul,” awareness is awareness of one’s embodied personality, not split between reason and emotions–cf. Suvin “Soul”). Jaggar argues that “[i]f emotions necessarily involve judgments, then obviously they require concepts, which may be seen as socially constructed ways of organizing and making sense of the world” (“Love” 151). Conversely, it is important that “emotions provide the experiential basis for values,” so that these two induce each other (ibidem 153); values and value judgments are in close feedback with emotion. I would doubt that the concepts required for emotions are necessarily very clear, but certainly emotions are in each person hugely inflected by the semantic hierarchies we are socialized into (e.g. the undoubtedly strong macho emotions about female virginity or chastity). As for values or evaluations, they are both intimately inflected by concepts and in immediate experience, no doubt, emotional.
Last but not least, our lives are largely shaped by a complex societal hegemony, that includes (alas) the determinations by political economy as well as direct political control and social group control, in fact–in the argument of Raymond Williams–all
the relations of domination and subordination, in their forms as practical consciousness, as in effect a saturation of the whole process of living. . . . It [hegemony] is a whole body of practices and expectations, over the whole of living: our senses and assignments of energy, our shaping perceptions of ourselves and our world. It is a lived system of meanings and values. . . . (109-10, emphasis added)
Fortunately, within any hegemony many people possess a range of oppositional, subversive, and potentially productive emotions incompatible with the dominant perceptions and evaluations. Such emotions may follow on our convictions or they may indeed precede them–say, when “all feelings are dominated by unemployment” (Brecht 19: 668). However, “Only when we reflect on our initially puzzling irritability, revulsion, anger or fear may we bring to consciousness our ‘gut-level’ awareness that we are in a situation of coercion, cruelty, injustice or danger” (Jaggar, “Love” 161).
In sum, it is necessary to rethink the relation between reason and emotion as mutually constitutive rather than oppositional. Far from precluding the possibility of reliable knowledge, emotion as well as value must be shown as necessary to knowledge (Jaggar, “Love” 156-57). A good example is Brecht’s 1938 reflection on the personal roots of his exile:
When I reflect what has Mitgehen [fellow travelling, falling into step, with an allusion on Mitfühlen–DS] led me to and in what has repeated examining helped me, I must counsel the latter. Had I succumbed to the former stance, I would still be living in my homeland, but had I not taken up the latter stance, I would not be an honest person. (26: 308)
To put all of this into technical terms: while emotion may be ontogenetically and phylogenetically prior to conceptuality, it is axiologically a necessary, intimate component of all reasoning or cognition. In our personal lives, emotions may follow on our conceptualized convictions or they may precede them. In any event, the feedback between emotions and conscious reflecting on them is necessary for any efficient intervening into societal reality–and particularly for societal groups struggling for a “perspective on reality available from the standpoint of the oppressed,” which we might optimistically take as “a perspective that offers a less partial and distorted and therefore a more reliable view” (Jaggar, “Love” 162). But this means, in turn, that the “epistemic potential of emotion” (ibidem 163) has to be taken seriously if any stance is to be stable (cf. also Hartsock; Jaggar, Feminist; Jameson; Lukács; Suvin, “On Cognitive,” “Subject,” and To Brecht, ch. 4). An epistemic potential does not confer any magical efficacy on either emotions or systematized concepts, simply a possibility for use or misuse. I cannot put it better than Brecht’s Me-Ti section “Über die Prüfung der Gefühlsbewegungen” (“Examining the Emotions“):
In our youth, said Me-ti, we were taught not to trust reason, and that was good. But we were also taught to trust our feelings, and that was bad. The source of our emotions is just as contaminated as the source of our judgments: for it is just as accessible to people’s designs and therefore continually polluted by ourselves and others. . . .
To assume there are emotions without reason means to understand reason wrongly.
- On Emotion in Brecht
Few statements about art have so struck me as Meier-Graefe’s
one about Delacroix: In him a hot heart beat in a cold person.
Brecht, Tagebuch 1922, 26: 270
2.1. The 1998 Suhrkamp six-volume “Jubilee edition” of Brecht, Ausgewählte Werke in 6 Bänden (4000 pages, 128 DM) was announced in a flyer and advertised as “Bertolt Brecht – Der ‘Klassiker der Vernunft’.” Who coined “The ‘Classic of Reason’” tag is not clearX/, but its hype at any rate wondrously encapsulates the red herring which has made a whole generation of German schoolkids hate Brecht like the plague. However, the appellation is either false (if reason is opposed to emotion) or quite unclear (if it is not argued what “Vernunft” may mean for and in Brecht, and what his stance toward and use of emotions really were). In an attempt to find this out, I collected ca. 50 propositions overtly mentioning feeling or emotion to be found in the 33 volumes of Brecht’s latest giant collected edition (GBFA). Among these, I have found two or three early ones which indeed oppose “emotio” to “ratio,” culminating in the “Anmerkungen zur Oper Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny“ (“Notes to the Opera Mahagonny”) published by Brecht together with Peter Suhrkamp in 1930 (24: 74-84). This one example has been cited again and again, probably because these notes were not only provocatively pointed and thus brief and clear but also because they were the only proof that could be found for Brecht as “the classic of reason” in the narrow sense. I have examined it at some length in “Haltung (Bearing)“ and I shall here just briefly summarize my finding.
The “Notes” contain many other significant themes, such as defining the central stance of existing opera “a culinary (or enjoying, geniesserische) stance,“ and further that “the present historical form [of enjoyment is] that of commodity” and that in Mahagonny this “provocative” thematics is subjected to some examination: “When for example in Section 13 the Glutton eats himself to death, he does so because hunger dominates” (24: 76-77). Emotion is mentioned in a memorable Kantian table with two opposed columns, which then became the bone of all future contentions. Some of its many brief entries stress a theatre that does not project the audience member into the action on the stage and thus paralyze his activity, but rather makes of him an onlooker and thus stimulates his activity, that does not give him the possibility for emotions but rather “forces him into decisions”; a theatre where “the feelings are not conserved” but rather “heightened into cognitions,” where people are not presupposed as known but rather become “an object to be examined.” Finally, the table ends with two oppositions: the first is taken from a brief summary in Marx’s Preface to For a Critique of Political Economy (MEW 13: 8), and the second is what I am leading up to in this particular discussion:
Thought determines being Social being determines thought
Emotion [Gefühl] Reason [Ratio]
This little scheme or table was then several times reprinted by itself, outside of the “Notes to Mahagonny,” which made it easy to forget Brecht’s initial important qualification that his table marked a change of stress (Gewichtsverschiebung) rather than a rigid metaphysical opposition. Nonetheless, the perceived opposition was then subjected to strong attacks not only by bourgeois conservatives but primarily by Lukács and his followers within official, increasingly Stalinist KP press. In 1938, reacting against oversimplifying provocations to which he was prone in the Weimar epoch, Brecht clarified and partly modified his position by rewriting this table. Together with minor cuts and modifications, he added an opposition between “what people ought to do” and “what people have to do,” i.e. between ethical prescription and economical-cum-physical necessity; and he suppressed the final opposition between emotion and reason (24: 85).
Furthermore, in an important letter from Sweden in July 1939 to a “comrade M,” Brecht commented:
[These] are notes to theatre performances and thus written in a more or less polemical vein. They do not contain full definitions and therefore often lead their student to misunderstandings which prevent him from working with them in a theoretically productive way. In particular, the opera article about Mahagonny needs some additions in order for the discussion to become fruitful. People have read out of it that I take the party “against the emotional and for the rational.” This is, of course, not so. I would not know how thoughts could be separated from emotions. Not even that part of contemporary literature which seems to be written without reason (Verstand) really separates intelligence from emotion. In it, the emotional is just as rotten as the rational. . . .
I would not write you all this had my works not in fact contained formulations which may push the debate toward a direction from which nothing follows. For, a discussion about “emotion or reason” obscures the main result that can be found in my works (or better attempts): that a phenomenon so far held as esthetically constitutive, the EMPATHY, has lately been more or less dispensed with in some works of art. (This obviously does not at all mean that emotion has been dispensed with.) (29: 149-50)
This is a crucial clarification. Any further discussion of Brecht’s stance toward emotions can only be fruitful if it begins by taking this letter seriously.
2.2. Thus, Brecht very soon retreated from any rhetoric against emotion. “This type of (epic) presentation,” he noted around 1931 a propos of The Mother, “does [not] renounce emotional effect: in fact, its emotions are only clarified… and have nothing to do with intoxication (Rausch)” (22.1: 162). Or in 1940, “non-aristotelian theatre uses also a critique based on emotions (gefühlsmässige)” (26: 438). This obviously holds for many other passages and figures of his plays and poems–always clearly delimited and de-automatized, which means wrested away from philistine sentimentality. Slighting here many other testimonies from Brecht’s emigration years, such as his major theoretical writings The Messingkauf Dialogues and A Short Organon for the Theatre, I shall cite here only two diary notes. In their brevity, they seem to me to constitute the two parts of his final, balanced view of a general approach to the “militant position of ‘reason vs. emotion’” (see the quote below). The first part deals with the art of theatre, and the second with the art of living.
In the diary note from Nov. 15, 1940, Brecht defined his theatre–“for a change” from the usual “bad definitions [as especially intellectualistic]” –“in emotional categories”:
This is possible without any problems, since in the epic theatre the emotional line and the intellectual line remain identical in the actor and in the spectator. It would be necessary [for such a defining] to build on the basis of curiosity and helpfulness a set of emotions which balances the set based on terror and pity. Of course, there are other bases for emotions too. There is above all human productivity, the noblest of them all. (26: 441)
A whole Brechtian theory of personality, including emotionality, could be reconstructed around this basic stance of productivity. It is variously associated not only with curiosity but also with happiness, friendliness, love, and “indignation, this socially highly productive affect” (27: 140).
Finally, Brecht could quite consistently announce, in the note of March 4, 1941, “that one must get out of the militant position of ’emotion vs. reason’”:
The relationship of ratio to emotio in all its contradictoriness should be exactly researched, and one should not allow our opponents to present epic theater as simply rational and anti-emotional. [On the one hand, “i]nstincts” which, automatized reactions to experiences, have become opposed to our interests. Muddied, one-track emotions, no longer controlled by reason. On the other hand the emancipated ratio of the physicists with their mechanical formalism. . . . The epic principles guarantee a critical stance in the audience, but this stance is eminently emotional. This critique is not to be confused with a critique in an exclusive scientific sense, it is much more inclusive, not at all specialized (fachbegrenzt), much more practical and elementary. (26: 467)
In sum, there is no use pretending Brecht did not indulge in provocatively one-sided exaggerations to shock the bourgeois, and then change his mind under the pressure of experience. He confessed to Benjamin in 1934 that his thinking had at times an “inflammatory” (hetzerische) stance (GS 6: 531), and in 1938 further explained to him: “It is good when one who has taken up an extreme position is overtaken by a reactionary period; one gets then to a location in the middle” (GS 6: 535). Brecht was uncommonly aware of the pressures of bloody politics in our century: “Fascism, with its grotesque stress on the emotional, and perhaps no less a certain decadence of the rational moment in the Marxist doctrine stimulated me to a stronger stress on the rational. Nonetheless, precisely the most rational form, the ‘play for learning’ (Lehrstück), shows the most emotional effects.” (22.1: 500)
A constant tenor of Brecht’s may be found in his defense of a certain type of flexible but critical reason, refusal of uncritical submersion in both stupidity and corrupt emotions, and attempt at contradictory reconciliations of emotion and reason in a proper stance (cf. e.g. 26: 324-25 and 28: 564-65). Thus, if we want to make full use of Brecht’s insights for our orientation today, I think at last three directions of further work are indicated.
The first direction would be to find out at least approximately what were in his opinion the emotions within “the set based on” curiosity, helpfulness, and indignation–indeed, sometimes based on “a mixture of pleasure and horror (which should not exist, no?)” or on “pioneering adventurousness” (22.1: 418 and 559). I believe a central place would be taken by a carefully weighted spread of emotional stances (see 21: 99 already in 1921)–but never indifference. Two pivots of such a spread could be the central stance of Brecht’s late period, friendliness, and his almost always practiced though not so often discursively stressed category (but cf. 22.2: 810-11 and 817) of grace uniting “passion and reason”–as in his proposed anthem, for which one much regrets it isn’t the German national anthem today (as it wasn’t in the GDR):
Anmut sparet nicht noch Mühe
Leidenschaft nicht noch Verstand
Dass ein gutes Deutschland blühe
Wie ein andres gutes Land.
(“Kinderhymne,” 12: 303)
[I cannot translate this gracious force here but will put it into rhyming prose at least:
Spare not any toil nor grace/ Spare not passion nor reason/ That a good Germany, as any good place, / Might come to its flowering season.]
The second direction of investigation should be to find out how in Brecht’s practice (of performances, poetry, and prose writings) differing emotions flexibly interact with each other and with notional propositions in precise places and precise dosages of emphasis. Brecht is much exercised with flexibility and a Daoist softness winning over rigidity (this is perhaps most memorably encapsulated in his poem Legend on the Coming About of the “Tao-te-king” Book). I shall begin discussing both these horizons in the third section below. I believe the strategic tension and opposition to be focussed upon is one between the dethroning of illusionistic, sentimental, uncritical, pseudo-compassionate empathy (Einfühlung–this is stressed in the cited 1939 letter, and other testimonies are in GBFA volumes 22-23 and 26-27, mostly adduced in my “Haltung [Bearing]”) and a possibly intense but always reasonable sympathy. This opposition between Einfühlung and Mitgefühl, empathy and sympathy, found in Brecht’s poetic, scenic, and other artistic (as well as practical) stances, may be used as applicable to empirical behaviour.
A third direction would approach Brecht’s central stance that productivity encompasses love and that love is a production. I have approached this strand elsewhere (in “Brecht: Bearing ,” using the pioneering indications by Haffad and Nussbaum) and hope to return to it.
- On Empathy vs. Sympathy: A Matter of Critical Distance
Emotions too participate in critique, maybe it is precisely your task to organize critique through emotions.
Brecht, Messingkauf Dialogues, 22.2: 751
Surprise and [spatial or temporal] distance… are both equally necessary for comprehending what surrounds you… so evidently that you can no longer see it clearly.
Braudel, “History and the Social Sciences”
The most important and enduring treatment of emotions pertaining vaguely to “sympathy” or “vicarious understanding,” i.e. to orientation toward other people, was in Brecht’s Germany Max Scheler’s intricate, today in places quite obsolete but in his time authoritative discussion. Its terminology ranges from not always clear to obfuscating, but I propose to dig out the following indications, changing them where need be for my purposes.
Scheler sharply differentiates fellow-feeling (Mitgefühl) both from commiserating with (Mitleiden)–or rejoicing with (Mitfreude)–and from a mere distanced reproduction (Nachvollzug) of others’ feeling or experience with no participation in it. On the one hand, in a putative imitation or reproducing (Nachvollzug) we feel the general quality of the other’s sorrow without suffering with her, or of his rejoicing without rejoicing with him. The other’s feeling is given at a remove, represented “like a landscape which we ‘see’ subjectively in memory, or a melody which we ‘hear’ in similar fashion” (9/20). Of course, this already presupposes an initial grasping and understanding of the fact that other people have their own experiences. However, while it remains unclear how this “intuitable intrinsic connection between individual and experience” works between two agents, it does not necessarily involve empathy on the part of the percipient (me). The other person has “an individual self distinct from our own,” which “we can never fully comprehend…, steeped as it is in its own psychic experience…”. We can only have “our own view of it…, conditioned as this is by our own individual nature” (10/21). Scheler therefore polemicizes expressly against any theory of “projective empathy”5/ based on identity between individuals, or on Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of unified Being as against illusory individuation (51/66), in which the Other, subject to suffering, is “another I (Ich noch ein Mal).” On the other hand, in fellow-feeling “a genuine experience takes place in me… similar to that which occurs in the other person…,” but not at all identical–not even in a perhaps briefer or weaker form (11/22).
We have thus to do here with two extremes, total lack of interest and contact (infinite distance) and total fusion of feeling and will (zero distance). Somewhere in between the two extremes, there is a middle area which he calls fellow-feeling. Full spiritual and practical entrusting of oneself to a cause and/or a person, say in religious or crypto-religious identification such as nationalism and fascism, is by Scheler called “emotional contagion” (Gefühlsansteckung, 14/25ff.), though again discussed in rather unclear ways. Still, he rightly points out that as a rule “belief in” a charismatic person is quite different from any argumentable “belief that” (86/96). It is here that Brecht’s contribution, and vectors based on it that can be carried further, may prove of central importance. To foreshadow: Brecht himself wanted to wean people from “feeling together (mitzuempfinden)” by incarnating themselves in the hero, in favour of “a higher kind of interest: the one in similes, in the other, the incalculable, the surprising” (26: 271; cf. 21: 534).
I conclude that what is useful today is to distinguish three stances: indifference without emotion; full emotional contagion (Mitleiden or Mitfreude), which is usually called empathy; and fellow-feeling, for which I propose to use the term sympathy. This can be best discussed in terms of cognitive (both notional and emotional) distance between the percipient and the perceived, the observer and the observed events.
Distance is an indispensable constituent and component of all understanding. It is a metaphor by which space is used for a moral and/or cognitive tenor when dealing with the psychological experience of involvement with events or existents, primarily other people and their actions. It presupposes an awareness of their separateness; as Simmel put it, distance is crucial “in order to cognize the specific meaning (Eigenbedeutung) of things…. The object… is juxtaposed to us only as far as it is not merely included into our relationship to it.“ (Philosophie 41-42) And more developed (or convoluted):
The image reached by means of a however constituted distance/interval (Abstand), has its own right, it cannot be replaced or corrected by another image reached by means of another distance/interval…. Only the particular goals of cognition may decide whether the immediately appearing or lived reality should be examined in view of (befragt werden soll auf) a personal or a collective subject…. (Grundfragen 11-12)6/
I believe Brecht’s Estrangement (Verfremdungs-Effekt, NOT alienation!) means that the spectator (and quite overtly also the social agent outside the theater) ought to take up a distance proper for understanding towards events and existents so that she might be surprised by their specific unlikenesses to what we know yet not prevented from understanding by their generic similarities. The proper distance should fit the matter treated, oscillating as required by the situation, as in Keller’s ability to move in and out of intimacy (Reflections passim); however, it is always somewhere within the range of Scheler’s Mitgefühl rather than indifference or full identification. This sympathizing distance (both terms of this tension being equally significant) most importantly means that the agent’s value-judgments and interests necessarily contain both approval and critique, though in quite various proportions according to the situation and her interests. I can here only allude to the decisive anthropological argument that experiences function in large part implicitly, so that when they cross between people, who never have quite the same presuppositions, the implications necessarily change (cf. Gendlin 399 and passim). A full identification is always illusory: it is itself an illusion and it works towards a life of unrealistic illusion. My emotion may have another’s ache or suffering as its intentional object, but the actual quality of the ache is inescapably my own. Already the pioneering Adam Smith had realized: “As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation” (I.i.1.2). Last not least, empathy is an important method of uncritical identification in politics, as Hitler most efficaciously realized—Benjamin called it in the 1930s “empathy into the victor” (GS 1: 696).
Brecht’s main orientation, in line with today’s most interesting anthropological psychology, is therefore a refusal of empathy as the be-all and end-all in favour of precisely graded and argued sympathy. Sympathy means, even etymologically, “feeling with” (as opposed to empathy’s “feeling into”); as Smith argued, when rightly defined it necessarily involves reflection and imagination since it is an opinion. Brecht emphatically stated that his theater “in no way dispenses with emotions. And in particular not with the feeling for justice, urge toward freedom and righteous anger…. The ‘critical stance’, to which it attempts to bring its audience, can never be too passionate for this theatre.” (23: 109) To the contrary, for him empathy (Einfühlung) is a stance brought about by “suggestion” in which “the spectator is. . . prevented from taking up a critical position toward the represented in proportion to the artistic efficacy of the representation” (26: 437).7/
Nonetheless, Brecht also powerfully, though sparingly, used and eventually began to theorize a transitory empathetic identification with some actions where they include emotions activating the spectator–most clearly, an indignation against the waste of human lives in oppressive situations of war or unemployment. Such an emotional identification may be found, he allowed, in many figures who reluctantly and sometimes only partially approach the right stance, but finally do take it up. This would hold for his female protagonists Pelagea Wlassowa in The Mother, Joan Dark in St. Joan of the Slaughterhouses, and Señora Carrar in the eponymous play (22.1: 161-62, 26: 455, 22.2: 677), as well as for Kattrin’s anger and pity when she is drumming to save the city and its children in Mother Courage and Her Children. For Galileo, it would hold only in patches (cf. Suvin, “Heavenly”).
Thus, Brecht’s work articulates a lifelong battle against hegemonic empathy. His main motive was that he witnessed in the 20th Century too many variants of polluted emotions: “The sources of [a person’s] feelings and passions are just as muddied up as the sources of his cognitions” (15: 295). The vampiric praxis of a passive audience emotionally “creeping into” the skin of the great as well as greatly suffering individual on the stage who will think, feel, and live for and in lieu of any spectator, which was memorably analyzed in The Messingkauf Dialogues, militated against self-determination. It was quite correctly identified by Brecht as the central mechanism of a “theatralics” or consensus-bonding of fascist unity between the leader and the led. As the Nazi slogan had it, “Der Führer denkt für uns!” (“The Leader thinks for us!“); and High Stalinism agreed.
Alas, his concern is not outdated. Illusionism has since shifted into the new US-led or “disneyfied” technologies of movie, and then TV and its successors (I discuss this at length in “Utopianism”). Research has shown there are many soap-opera fans who (con)fuse characters and actors, though nobody knows just how many sustain it for how long: the best guesstimate I found is that perhaps 5-10% are in a “lunatic dimension” (cf. the conflicting views in Harrington-Bielby 104-10 and 120-21). The uncritical use of empathy, from hero worship to the turn to “reality as spectacle” in late imperialism, arrogantly denies the Other the status of a person who is like me–somebody who is in given essential aspects of needfulness for life and justice the same as me–but also unlike me, having her own will and rights. Concomitant to this, my own freedom and identity are also slighted. Empathy thus remains the central mechanism for illusion(ism), a psychological and political menace. It may only be avoided by a constant interaction of knowing with not‑knowing, of the already significantly understood and the now for the first time to be significantly understood.
X/ Mr. Günter Berg of the Suhrkamp Verlag answered my queries about the source of this quote that it muist have been coined by Dr. Unseld, head o Suhrkamp Verlag (e-mail to me of 30/10/1998). I found later on the inner dust-jacket of Hans Mayer’s Brecht in der Geschichte (Bibl. Suhrkamp Bd. 284, 1971) a bombastic quote from a certain Hans Vetter, which may be Dr. Unseld’s source: “Im Buch der Literatur des Jahrhunderts gebührt Brecht der Titel des Klassikers der Vernunft.”
1/ The terminology about emotion is a jungle of competing disciplinary or indeed personal semantics, so that anybody venturing upon it must hew out her own path and stick to it, or founder. For ex. One school holds that “feeling” encompasses both psychological emotions and physiological affects; and so on. “Passion” started out in Latin as passive suffering (for ex. the Passion of Jesus), it is in English and French generally regarded as intensely goal-directed. “Pathos” is in English a theatrical and not quite genuine representation of emotion. The situation in other languages, such as German, is not less but differently intricate—see note 6.
My thanks go to the Humboldt Foundation for a Prize which allowed me to work in the Brecht Archive during the tenure at some intervals in 1997-2000, and to Erdmut Wizisla and the Archive staff. Also to Sabine Kebir and Thomas Weber for indications of materials. All the unattributed translations from non-English texts are mine.
For reasons of space I am not discussing here Brecht’s personal relationships to women, about which much misleading and simply wrong stuff has been written in criticism of Fuegi’s type. The most balanced books on this theme seem to me those by Kebir (see the four titles in Works cited), about which I have written in Brecht Yearbook (Suvin, “A Very” and “Sabine Kebir”).
2/ See Suvin, “Haltung” and “Haltung (Bearing).” I find with pleasure that this conclusion has been earlier arrived at by Dümling (626), whose excellent book is most useful for discussing Brecht’s bearings–not only as concerns music.
3/ Most philosophical approaches from Husserl on, especially after 1950, would generally agree with the view that emotions are intentional, that is, in part constituted by cognition and evaluation, cf. Rorty and Stocker; illustrious precursors of such a stance would include Rousseau. From this it follows that people an be held responsible for acting on basis of emotions. But it does not follow that emotion, though in principle or potentially cognitive, is to be simply identified with reason; an interesting argument is that it supplements inadequate (for ex. too slow) reasoning, cf. de Sousa.
4/ See for an introduction to the literature on categorization Rosch, and for an interesting complementary approach on “kinesthetic image schemas” Johnson. Even the ultra-formalist Kripke allows that feeling is essential to concepts, since all conscious mental states are inseparable from a raw feel of experience, while the psychologist Lazarus has in extensive discussions (I cite the latest I found) argued that a situational appraisal of personal significance is indispensable for an emotion.
5/ On Lipps’s “projective empathy” and the history of the term up to and including Brecht, see Weber.
6/ Simmel’s most important discussion on distance is perhaps in “The Stranger.” –Besides Brecht, and the two people on whose shoulders he here stands, Nietzsche and Shklovsky, in the pleasingly interdisciplinary secondary literature on distance I found useful Blumenberg, Bullough, Ginzburg, Scarry, the survey by Phillips with a larger bibliography, and the rich materials in Osterkamp. Osterkamp points out that the dichotomy of affects vs. more complex emotions is by some scholars termed Gefühle (feelings) vs. Emotionen, but this minority view is at odds with Brecht’s usage of Gefühl and Emotion as synonyms as well as with the English use of “emotion” for both.
7/ Here Brecht was not that far from Aristotle, who in his Rhetoric (6 2.8) rightly observes that :suffering without distance is not pitiable but horrible. There can only be pity (say in theatre) when the onlooker is sufficiently near to the suffering of others yet not completely identified with it.
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